Back in the days of the USSR, when Russia was one of fifteen Soviet Republics, there were frequent shortages of consumer goods. So when a particular item arrived in stock, it would often be sold from a table on the street rather than have a shop flooded with people. The long queue that inevitably grew would be a signal of something worth having. It could be foodstuff, cloth, cleaning materials, even books of poetry. And the queues could be very long indeed.
There was a fixed ritual involved in queuing. You joined the end, asked “Who’s last?”, noted whoever claimed that position, and then you’d say “I’m last”. Your next question would be “What are they selling?”. Note the order here – much more important to make sure no one could sneak in front of you before finding out what the mystery item was. And if you were told “hair brushes”, for example, then you would, if you were me, just resign your place in the queue.
An old Soviet joke goes:
Vladimir Sorokin wrote an entire book about a queue that lasted several days and whose inhabitants never knew what awaited them.
But if you never knew when you would come across a queue, and had even less idea what you’d get if you finally got to the front before it ran out, how did you get your purchase home? If it was toilet rolls (much prized and rarely available) and you bought 12 rolls, you might get a free piece of string. And a fine necklace it made, too. But for other things, Russians would whip out a string bag that they always carried with them, on the offchance that they’d stumble upon a queue. The name given to these bags was avoska – from the word avos (авось), which means maybe, perhaps with the particle –ka (-ка) which means what if (among other things). So it’s a “just-in-case” bag, or an “on-the-offchance” bag.
Apparently, “You wouldn’t come across a person walking around with a string bag in modern Russia. Avoskas have long become a thing of the past. However, as a word it is still used to describe a shabby nylon or plastic bag that only a person with no taste would take out into the street. Avoska has a rather negative meaning. It tends to mean something big, shapeless, untidy, something very much out of place in a person’s looks” according to Russiapedia.
But to me, 1500 miles from Tverskaya Ulitsa or Nevskii Prospekt, the word sums up a spirit of optimism and hope, however forlorn, and while I may well be a person with no taste, I happily take my avoska out into the street.
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About Stephen Bullon
Stephen Bullon is the Macmillan Dictionaries Publisher. After doing a Russian degree, which involved five months at Leningrad State University, he spent four years teaching EFL before getting a job as a trainee lexicographer, and has been working in dictionaries for the last 30 years.